The Labour party has set up a new commission addressing Britain's failure to exploit new technology in the classroom.
Half the computers in primary schools and one third in secondary schools are virtually obsolete, according to Labour's leader, Tony Blair. Four out of five teachers have little or no training in new technology while only one third of secondary teachers use computers more than twice a week.
Speaking at the opening of this week's Curriculum 2000 conference, sponsored by The TES and the British Film Institute, Mr Blair outlined a vision of personally-tailored learning for all, and said that new technology would help a Labour government launch "a thorough-going attack" on deep-seated education problems, including the elitism of Britain's school system.
He said Labour has already established a panel of independent experts including teachers, business people, financiers and educationists to report on "options for the development of our vision". It is to be chaired by Dennis Stevenson, chair of the Trustees of the Tate Gallery and a leading businessman.
Mr Blair did not elaborate on his earlier promise to look at ways of giving every child access to a laptop computer. This was made at last autumn's party conference when Labour stole a march on the Conservatives with the news that it has struck a deal with BT to put every school and college on the "information superhighway".
His panel of experts will be asked to look at the consequences of new technology for the curriculum, teacher training and school organisation, and will examine ways of involving private money to help fund it.
Mr Blair said this week that "a marriage of education and technology could make Britain the knowledge capital of the 21st century. We have an opportunity to lead the world". But this, he said, was a challenge on a par with establishing the welfare state in 1945.
He repeated his assertion that education will be "the passion" of a future Labour government. "The country must compete on the basis of quality and skill rather than on the back of low wages," he said.
"Our starting point will be standards in the classroom." The schooling system did not need permanent revolution in its structures, but it did require a thorough-going attack on some of its most deep-seated problems.
"These are a concentration on the fortunes of an elite at the expense of a majority; a failure to combine pressure on and support of teachers in a productive way; lack of focus on the early years, and rigidity and over- specialisation in the later secondary years."
Computers could help pupils learn up to 30 per cent faster in some subjects, said Mr Blair who claimed that in future children could receive the equivalent of 16 years' education in only 12 years of schooling. New technology could also reduce the burden of bureaucracy on teachers.
Mr Blair said that the importance of computers is such that by the year 2005, there will be 10 million people working in the software industry in the nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Already more than half of all jobs require computer literacy in the US.
"We don't want to open our homes and classrooms to cranks and propagandists and we don't want our society to be divided between information and skill-rich and information and skill-poor. But the dangers are more than matched by the possibilities. At no time in history have the possibilities for transformation and innovation been as great as they are now."